By Sima Ayvazian, Sochi

April 14, BBC News

They won't utter Yuri Gagarin's famous phrase "Let's go!" But the monkeys of Sochi have already proven their worth as trailblazers in space - and now they are being groomed for a trip to Mars.

The macaques will be the first to experience the radiation that poses a big risk to astronauts - or Russian cosmonauts - on any flight to the Red Planet.

The Sochi Institute of Medical Primatology, at Vesyoloye near the Black Sea, has a proud history of involvement in the Russian - formerly Soviet - space programme.

"People and monkeys have approximately identical sensitivity to small and large radiation doses," explains the institute's director, Boris Lapin. "So it is better to experiment on the macaques, but not on dogs or other animals."

The institute will select macaques that may eventually fly to Mars before humans do. After two years of experiments the most suitable 40 monkeys will be sent to the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, where scientists study aerospace biomedicine.

Experiments on the monkeys will be carried out at the same time as the Mars-500 project. That project - due to start early next year - is aimed at simulating the conditions of interplanetary flight. Volunteers will have to spend 17 months in a mock-up "spaceship" in Moscow.

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photo: Monkeys previously orbited Earth in the Bion capsule (BBC News)